Being a pastry chef is no mean feat. Mixing together precisely measured quantities of ingredients, baking under controlled temperatures, sculpting beautiful figures and displays – it is more like a fine culinary art. Now, what happens if a pastry chef is challenged to do all that within a time limit? Enter the National Pastry Team. They are a group of talented pastry chefs specially selected to represent Singapore in pastry competitions all around the world. On their competition line-up, they will be participating at the Mondial Des Arts Sucres at Villepinte from 5 to 6 February, where they will be required to create many items, from sugar and chocolate centrepieces to plated desserts and confectionaries – something they have been training months for. From Dubai to Paris to Singapore, these chefs have seen it all; we get two young chefs to share their experiences.
Getting to know the Chefs
Chef Ben Goh Kai Chuen is currently a Pastry Chef at InterContinental Singapore. He has accumulated various accolades throughout his time as representative of the National team, including Overall Champion at the 2013 Dubai World Hospitality Championship, 1st Runner Up at the 2015 Top Patisserie in Asia Tokyo Cake Show, a World Ranking of 6 at the 2016 Gelato World Cup Rimini (he was Team Captain), and Finalist at the 2017 World Gourmet Summit Pastry Chef of the Year.
Chef Chong Koo Jee is the 2015 Best Lady Pastry Chef of the Singapore Pastry Cup 2015. Formerly a pharmacist by training, she bravely underwent a career-switch and is now a fully-fledged pastry chef. Her other achievements include Overall Champion and Best Sugar Sculpture for the 2017 Singapore Pastry Cup, Best Press Award at the 2016 Paris Mondial Des Arts Sucres, and Top 5 of 15 countries at the 2015 Singapore Pastry Cup.
What sparked your interest in baking?
GOH: My grandmother got me interested in baking. I used to bake kueh lapis with her every Chinese New Year to earn some extra pocket money, and it took off from there.
CHONG: Actually, I was looking for a change in profession when I got myself interested in the creative side of pastry making.
What made you join the National Pastry Team?
GOH: When I was at Swissotel the Stamford, I worked alongside Chef Kenny Kong, who was in charge of the National Pastry Team’s training sessions back then. He would always organise the practices and rehearsals in the kitchen and I found myself wanting a new challenge in my pastry career.
CHONG: I joined to challenge myself, enhance my skills and expose myself to different aspects of pastry art.
What is the most challenging aspect of competitive pastry?
GOH: I would say it’s finding the time to constantly come up with new ideas. It’s especially difficult after a long day at work to brainstorm and find new inspirations to wow the judges.
CHONG: Having to create new ideas, that’s one. Managing our time during competitions is tough too because there’s so much to do but so little time for execution.
In the various competitions you have met different pastry chefs from across the world. What type of pastry do you feel Singapore bakers are best in? Is there anything unique about Singapore pastry chefs and Singapore pastry in general?
GOH: I think we’ve always done well in the flavour combination area and we generally get very good results in the tasting section. We’re always able to infuse western desserts with our local flavours, such as gula melaka.
CHONG: I think what we do best is being able to apply a twist to traditional local pastries; for example bringing the goreng pisang to a western fusion plating competition.
You mentioned that you guys constantly challenge yourselves to do better. Is there any secret to keeping that creative spark going?
GOH: I think it’s very important to stay humble. Always ask if you don’t know something.
CHONG: We constantly try to keep up with the latest pastry trends. Practice and experimentation matters a lot: trying out ideas with different ingredients, and striving to create new things.
Do you have any rituals or practices that you engage in before a big competition? How do you prepare for a big event?
GOH: Usually, we just practise until we are very familiar with all the required steps.
CHONG: Practice, practice and practice. And I make sure to keep calm and let my hands do the work.
Any interesting anecdotes from your experiences as part of the National Pastry Team?
GOH: We once went on a desperate search to find a Chinese restaurant in Rimini, Italy because all we had been having in the last few days was pasta and pizza. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find one! Another interesting anecdote comes from my experience at the Tokyo Cake Show. We didn’t know that Japan’s wall plugs ran at 110 watts and our equipment from Singapore required 220 watts, as a result my sugar lamp heat ran at only half of its usual power. Thankfully, I was still able to finish my dish!
CHONG: I don’t have a particular funny story per se but I have gotten much joy from meeting fellow pastry chefs from other countries and making new friends.
What is the best piece of pastry that you’ve done?
GOH: I think it would be my piece in Japan’s “Top Patisserie in Asia”. It was a solo competition and they required me to do a chocolate and sugar showpiece. I create a blue sugar piece titled Alice in Wonderland, and a pink sugar piece titled Queen of Hearts.
CHONG: Honestly, any banana desserts that I’ve done! Banana is my favourite fruit.
What is the proudest moment of your career?
GOH: It would definitely be winning the Dubai World Hospitality Championship in 2013. We were competing against 12 other countries, with the likes of Hong Kong, Switzerland, USA, and Germany amongst them. These countries have very strong culinary and pastry backgrounds. Furthermore, we only had a team of three to prepare four cakes, four French pastries, six desserts, four types of bread, one live dessert station, a chocolate, sugar and bread showpiece for a 50 pax buffet, all within 48 hours. It was really tough but in the end, we emerged overall champions. It was one of the best moments I have ever experienced.
CHONG: It would definitely have to be when I joined first Singapore Pastry Cup 2015 and won the title of Singapore’s Best Female Pastry Chef.
If you weren’t a baker, what would you be?
GOH: Honestly I don’t know. I can’t imagine my life any other way.
CHONG: I would probably have continued in my previous field, as a pharmacist.
Do you have any tips for the aspiring home baker out there?
GOH: Always use fresh ingredients whenever you can. For example, you can always squeeze your own lemon juice, compared to buying it off the shelf. Besides that, keep experimenting with different recipes from different chefs to find the one you like best.
CHONG: Stay creative! Get inspired by new ideas and let the passion flow from within you.